Great River Road designated "All-American Road"

2021 is a special year for the Wisconsin Great River Road. The 250 mile stretch of iconic highway was granted “All-American Road” status by the Federal Highway Administration; a designation reserved for only the very best of America’s National Scenic Byways.

To be an All-American Road a byway must be nationally significant–a destination unto itself–with one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere. It must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make the drive a primary reason for their trip.

In 2012, readers of Huffington Post voted the Wisconsin Great River Road America’s “prettiest drive,” beating out other scenic travel routes including Maui’s Road to Hana and California’s Big Sur Coastal Drive. As the state’s only National Scenic Byway, you know you’re in for something special.

Your road trip begins in Prescott, the northern gateway to the Great River Road. One of the oldest towns in the state, Prescott is located at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, a distinction you will want to remember later in your tour.

If you’re coming across the state line, you’ll cross the St. Croix River over the Prescott Drawbridge. The region’s only highway drawbridge with active traffic, this unique steel girder bridge incorporates a double-leaf bascule drawbridge section to accommodate river traffic. Adjacent to the drawbridge you’ll see the massive BNSF Railroad Bridge.

Explore Prescott

Like so many of the quaint towns and villages along Wisconsin’s Great River Road, Prescott is one where you can park your wheels and head out on foot to explore. Take the official historic walking tour, or just browse the unique shops and restaurants that line the main street. Don’t leave town without swinging by the Welcome and Heritage Center (open weekdays 10am-3pm) where you’ll get a brief history lesson about Prescott, including information about their restored Clock Tower and Seth Thomas Tower Clock. This is a great selfie spot–don’t forget to take a photo before you go.

It’s got to be close to lunchtime by now. Many of Prescott’s restaurants and taverns offer outdoor dining with river views. One popular restaurant is Muddy Waters. Their American menu boasts original offerings made from fresh ingredients. Dine out on their 3-level deck and your meal will come with a great view of the St. Croix, too.

Lucille’s, just across the street, is another great dining option. This locally owned gastropub features creative menu options, daily specials, and a regular schedule of live music. Their dog-friendly patio feels more like a backyard garden–cozy and lush; it was voted one of the best in the Twin Cities.

With a full belly, you’re ready to hit the road to the Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center at Freedom Park. A true gem of the Great River Road, the center features exhibits, native plant gardens, cultural experiences and displays, and some amazing river views. You’ll have a birds-eye view of where the blue waters of the St. Croix converge with the “Great Muddy”. Birders will appreciate that the center is an Audubon Birding Site on the Great River Road Birding Trail, and a Watchable Wildlife Site. If you’ve packed a picnic, this would be the ideal spot to enjoy it!

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Great River Road Curiousities

Now, back to the Great River Road as we continue to head south; you’re traveling parallel to the Mississippi now, and just like the river, the highway cuts through wooded hills and bluffs and farmland. You’ll catch some glimpses of the river–don’t worry, there are many more views to come!

One fun sight (and selfie spot) along the drive is the giant chicken at the Hager Heights Drive-In. Talk about local flavor, this iconic drive-in has it. When Hager Heights opens for the season, the word spreads like wildfire and locals immediately begin to line up for the chicken they’ve been craving all winter. If time allows, swing in for a quick pic for your Instagram and just try to resist the smell of that broasted chicken.

You’re about to come upon the first historic marker of your journey–the Bow and Arrow historical marker. Swing in and dedicate a few minutes of your road trip to this archeological curiosity.

Bay City Stops

If you have an interest in regional history, plan this itinerary around one of the Pierce County Historical Association History Site open houses. Open one weekend a month in the summer, their River Bluffs History Center in Bay City features rotating displays housed in a historic Lutheran church turned interpretive center.

Antiquers and lovers of vintage will want to check out the two area antique shops. Right on the main drag, you’ll find Old Stuff. True to its name the small space is jam-packed with all types of old treasures. Just 3 miles out of town, Echo’s of the Past features whimsy for the garden, as well as a variety of antique and vintage items and collectibles.

You’re seeing more of the Old Man River now and will notice it is becoming wider. This is Lake Pepin, the widest navigable section of the Mississippi. For a great view and some background on this natural formation, stop at the Lake Pepin Historical Marker. If you have a pair of binoculars with you, it would be good to grab them. While the sparkling water is sure to capture your attention, don’t forget to look up. You’re in the region knowns as the Mississippi Flyway, a navigation route for birds of all kinds, including American white pelicans. You’re bound to see to see a bald eagle or two, too.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Visit the Farm

Pierce County’s roots in agriculture has led to a growing number of unique and interactive agri-tourism experiences for visitors to enjoy. If you are fortunate to visit during the blueberry season (typically July through early August), a short side trip to Rush River Produce’s u-pick berry farm is a must-stop destination. You haven’t tasted a blueberry until you’ve tasted one picked straight from the blueberry bush. The same goes for their black currants, white currants, and gooseberries, too! Located on top of the bluff, you’ll enjoy the small farm setting that overlooks the river below. They provide the boxes, and you pick to your heart’s content. Owners, John & Terry Cuddy are friendly hosts, willing to share their knowledge about their produce and the area.

Another nearby farm experience on the bluffs is Lakeview Organic Farm. William and Sarah Brenner are organic farmers offering visitors an old-fashioned down on the farm experience. At their self-serve market, you’ll find their signature farm product, cold-pressed sunflower oil, as well as farm fresh eggs, wood-fired maple syrup, their popular Maple Sun Salad Dressing, cold-pressed CBD oil, CBD oil products, and seasonal baked treats.

Legendary Maiden Rock

We’re now off to explore the small village of Maiden Rock. The village was named after the bluff just 4 miles south and the region’s own tragic Romeo and Juliet-style love story. As legend has it, Winona, the young daughter of Dakota Sioux chief, Red Wing, devastated at the thought of marrying the man her father had chosen for her instead of the Chippewa brave she loved, leaped from the rock to her death.

Today Maiden Rock, population 99, has become an artists’ haven and a popular stop for bikers–with just two blocks of shops and taverns. Visitors are thrilled to find Cultural Cloth, featuring an ever-changing inventory of one-of-a-kind textiles, accessories, and home decor items made by artisans from developing countries around the world. Founders Mary Anne Wise and Jody Slocum can often be found working the shop and enjoy sharing the story of what led to their venture that is contributing to the sustainability of traditional crafts and the economic independence of the artisans they represent. You will leave with a newfound appreciation for textile artistry, as well as inspired.

Just steps away is the Smiling Pelican Bake Shop. If they’re open you better hightail it over for some of their fresh baked goods which include seasonal pies, cookies, breads, and more. Everything is scratch-made and the inventory sells out quickly. If you are lucky enough to purchase something, kudos to you!


Just a quick walk up the street is The Nest Gallery. Artist and entrepreneur Leah Sheldon first opened the shop as a way to showcase local and regional artists during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic as artists lost opportunities to sell their work. Today, the shop continues to feature the original art pieces of regional artisans. You’ll find handcrafted candles, pottery, jewelry, and more.

Just across the street, is The Green Queen, a garden accessory shop. Owner Nikki Werner has turned this cottage into a cute and quaint destination for native plants, garden decor, and other finds that inspire outdoor living and gardening.

No visit to our state would be complete without a stop at an authentic Wisconsin tavern. At Six String Saloon you’re so close to the tracks you can almost touch the trains as they go by. A regular schedule of live music adds to the ambiance; or play some tunes on the jukebox or join in karaoke. If you’re feeling peckish, deep-fried cheese curds are on the menu. The Prime Rib Sandwich is a tasty option, and the Rueben has a fan following, too.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Tourism